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Editorial: Gov't must lend helping hand to students in coronavirus financial crunch

Due to the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there are university and vocational students who are in danger of having to drop out of school.

This is because their parents are unable to send them money due to the worsening economy, or because their own employers are suspending their businesses, leaving the students without the means to pay tuition and for everyday expenses.

There also appear to be students who are isolated and under psychological pressure because they have been asked not to return to their hometowns out of fears that they may bring the new coronavirus.

Some universities have taken unique steps. For example, Tohoku University in northeastern Japan announced that it would spend some 400 million yen (around $3.75 million) to help students in financial trouble, such as by providing them with opportunities to work at the university. Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo has provided 50,000 yen (about $470) to every one of its students, so that they can buy equipment needed to take online classes and for other uses.

Leaving such measures up to the universities, however, can lead to major gaps between institutions that do have the financial resources and those that do not. Public funding is essential.

In its supplementary budget bill for fiscal 2020, the national government set aside funds to assist universities and other institutions that reduce or waive tuition. The government must swiftly announce the specific process for receiving assistance, and also support universities that are already acting.

This spring, a scholarship system -- in which there is no need to pay back the money, unlike most Japanese scholarships -- for low-income families began. The government has also made families suffering from the economic shock of the pandemic eligible for the program. However, there are conditions that must be met, such as household income criteria. Should not such conditions be loosened so that a wider range of students can receive assistance?

From an international perspective, tuition at Japanese universities is considered high. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, tuition in the 2018 academic year was an average of around 900,000 yen for private universities, and around 540,000 yen for national universities. In the past 30 years, tuition has risen by 1.6 times.

At the same time, however, amounts of money that parents send to their children at university have trended downward because incomes have failed to keep up with the rise in tuition, among other reasons that are making families increasingly reliant on students to cover at least a portion of college costs with part-time jobs. Worse still is that students doing part-time work are in weak positions as laborers. As a general rule, they are not eligible for employment insurance, and even if their employer goes bankrupt, they cannot get unemployment benefits.

Students were already barely able to make ends meet. Having been hit directly by the effects of the coronavirus, their lives are sliding towards collapse.

According to a survey by a student organization, one in 13 students was said to be considering quitting university. It would be a great loss to society if the young people who are our future were to be blocked from the opportunity to study, and to lose hope. The government must take leadership and move quickly to save these students.

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